By Brad Spencer
Chris Ledbetter called, breathless, ecstatic; if projectile spit could somehow make its way through a phone receiver, then I would have been immediately grabbing for a tissue. OPRF High School's head baseball coach had something big to tell me.
"OK OK settle down Leddy, your words are all jumbling together," I told him.
"He's eligible! He threw 112! It's un-be-liev-able!"
Ledbetter was referring to new OPRF High School student Heath Harlow, a 14-year-old Amish ballplayer from rural Pennsylvania whose parents loaded the family into the horse and buggy and moved to Oak Park over the summer to begin a quilt-making business.
"The Illinois High School Association ruled he's eligible to play!" Ledbetter wailed about the freshman. "He's already thrown batting practice, and we've gone through three catcher's mitts. You need to get down to the field right now and see this."
The coach had mentioned Harlow to me when discussing this season's lineup for a preview story just a week or so ago. The discussion was off the record, because Ledbetter wanted to wait for the IHSA's ruling.
When I first encountered Harlow at the ballfield on a rainy Thursday afternoon last week, I was both bewildered and skeptical of his talents. He is extremely big for his age. Harlow stands a towering 6-foot-9. He's a firm 235 pounds. A boyish face highlights crisp green eyes. But it's his clothing that throws you a little. It's his hand-made blue shirt, blue trousers, dark coat and black-felt hat that are most perplexing. This is not proper attire for a ballplayer on a ballfield. Ledbetter gestured him over to the mound, dirty work boots and all.
A few of the Huskies were there, standing in the dugout with the drizzle glistening on their astonished faces. Pitchers Drew Golz, Scott Rasley and Kyle Glancy appeared crestfallen, dejection apparent from their slumped shoulders.
"Ras," hollered Ledbetter, "grab a mitt and take a squat behind home plate."
"Why me?" pleaded Rasley. "My hand still hurts from playing soft-toss with the guy."
"He has a name, Ras; it's Keith, I think," said Ledbetter, "now get behind the plate."
Without a glove, without much of a windup, without even so much as a stretch, Heath Harlow threw a bullet down the middle of the plate that knocked Rasley over.
"Bailing hay, raising barns, you name it," was the kid's nonchalant answer when asked how he learned to throw like that. "It's nothing, really. My parents don't even know that I have taken to the game."
Just then we noticed a car slow down and putter past the ballfield. Fenwick head coach Dave Hogan could be seen in the driver's seat. He scratched his mustache, raised his eyebrows and seemed to mouth the words, "What the ...."
Ledbetter convinced Harlow's parents, Amos and Mary, that their son had a special gift he needed to pursue. The towering right-hander will start for OPRF soon enough. You'll know who he is by the black-felt hat.
And if any of you believe any of this, then you're all ... April fools.
A sentiment and a story ode to the late George Plimpton (Sidd Finch). This column originally ran in Wednesday Journal's print edition on April 1, 2008.
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